Sunday, June 10, 2012

Puyallup High School Baccalaureate Speech

Puyallup High School Baccalaureate Speech
June 10, 2012
Hans Zeiger

Thanks Lisa, and thanks to Cheryl Olson and everyone else who was involved in organizing this. What a wonderful afternoon, and thanks for everyone who has shared their talents here. 

I got to speak at an elementary school recently and a few days later I got a thank you note from one of the students. He said he really appreciated my speech and he was inspired about what I had to say about becoming a politician, but he said that he’s going to stick with being an anesthesiologist when he grows up.

Enough time has gone by since I participated in the baccalaureate service back in ‘03 that I can get up and say things like, “When I was your age,” and “back in my day.”

Some day you’ll come back here too and think about the good old days. Among the things you think back fondly about, the culminating project will not be one of them. But for me I get nostalgic every fall during cross country season. I think about English class with Mrs. Pursley and AP History with Mr. Morgan, and every so often I remember the big earthquake of February 28, 2001. I think you were in First Grade at the time, but I was in the PHS Commons. My friends said I was under the table three seconds before the earth started shaking.

The other day my mom found a dusty stash of some long-forgotten graduation cards, and it was interesting to go back through them, to see what people wrote and to think how those people have continued to be involved in my life in the intervening years. One person wrote, “If you can remain humble and keep your eyes on the Lord, who knows how greatly He will use your life for Him?” Another person wrote out a couple verses from Colossians 2: “As ye therefore received Jesus Christ the Lord, so walk ye in Him: Rooted and built up in Him, and established in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.”

Next Saturday, you and your classmates will walk across the commencement platform. That verse in Colossians tells us to walk – in Him, and to embrace all of the blessings that go along with walking in Him.

Isaiah 55 tells us how we should go out. Verses 12 and 13, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; and it shall be a sign to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” You should be like that as you go out. Go out with joy and peace and believe in God’s awesome and eternal promises for you.

Go out with joy. It’s amazing how often Scripture tells us that we should rejoice and be glad. We have an eternal hope, and when we realize that there’s no end of the joy that we can experience.

Another way that you should go out is with confidence. I have also been struck by how many times it says in Scripture things like “fear not,” and “don’t worry.” You should go out calmly. You should go out like the PHS football team goes out onto the field. There’s a little prayer that the Vikings would recite in the locker room before going out to play in the 1950s. It said, “Our gracious Lord, in the tense moments, give us the calmness to make decisions, and help us keep our cool so that we do not bring injury to ourselves or others.”

For me, the question about how I should go out into the world weighed more heavily my mind at the end of college than it did at the end of high school. If you’re like me over the next several years, you’ll come to a series of junctures where you have to make decisions about what comes next. Maybe some of you have just made big decisions—decisions about where to go to college, what your career path is going to be, and maybe some of you will be making them soon.

For me there was a bigger question. It’s not just what am I going to do when I grow up, but what do I have to do to live a significant life in the limited time we’ve been given? As I thought about that question, I realized that God doesn’t usually give us lives of fame and fortune; for most of us, our calling is to do well in whatever set of opportunities God has given us. I learned a song when I was in Sunday School as a kid. “Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light like a little candle burning in the night. In this world of darkness Jesus bids us shine, you in your small corner and I in mine.”

Scripture tells us not to despise the day of small things. God works in ordinary circumstances, and He can use ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  

There are lessons in how others have gone out from here before us.

After I graduated from college a few years ago, I was watching Band of Brothers, and if you’ve seen it you know how there are interviews with the actual veterans of the European war in the beginning of the episodes. And I thought, boy, there are guys like that around Puyallup who won’t be with us much longer. So I started out in December of 2007 sitting down for about 5 hours with the late Paul Harmes, Class of 1939, and he just opened my eyes to the need to hear the stories of that generation. Since then I have talked to as many people as I could find who are connected to this community and who were involved in that war.

One of the first things I learned about that generation of Puyallup High School alums and how they went out from here is that they were proud to be Vikings. Wherever they went, this school and this community held a special place in their hearts. 

There is history here in this room where we’re sitting today. Not all of it is good. It was here that an assembly was held in April of 1942 to say goodbye Japanese-American students who were to be interned in the Puyallup Fairgrounds. It was here again, a couple months later, that Japanese-American graduates in the class of 1942 were allowed out of the Fairgrounds briefly to walk with their class in the auditorium.  

But standing on this stage, I think of someone who spent a lot of time here many years ago. His name was Richard Sloat, and everybody in Puyallup thought that he was going to be president someday. He had red, wavy hair and a million-dollar smile.

When I called the Marine Corps commanding officer who was with Dick when he was killed on the island of Saipan in 1944, I only mentioned the name of Lt. Richard Sloat. “My God, my God,” replied Col. Ed Bale of New Mexico. “You raise the hair on the back of my neck, and I’m glad you did, because he was a fine, fine, fine man.” 

In high school, Dick was involved in drama right here as well as debate, but he was known to his peers in the Puyallup High School Class of 1936 and the surrounding classes as the preeminent student leader of their generation. They made him student body president in his senior year, and he was a natural talent in school assemblies and speeches.

After college and a couple years of teaching drama and speech, the war came and Dick volunteered for the Marine Corps. Lt. Sloat was a platoon leader with the First Corps Tank Battalion’s C Company, which ended up on an island in the Pacific called Tarawa.   

Puyallup paid a heavy price in the Battle of Tarawa. In the initial moments of the amphibious invasion on November 20, 26-year old Johnny Holm who lived a few blocks from the high school was killed in the water. Then 27-year old Pfc. Carol Lundrigan, a 1934 graduate of PHS who was wounded a year earlier in the Battle of Guadalcanal, was struck down on the island.

Sloat’s tank came off the landing craft and onto the island through a firestorm. Most of the tanks in their company were disabled on the first day of fighting, but Sloat’s tank made it to an airfield by nightfall where the crew got some rest. The next day, Dick lost his tank commander to a sniper’s bullet, and back out on the beachhead, the tank was destroyed but the remaining crew survived.   

After the battle of Tarawa, Dick became the company executive officer, with Ed Bale as commander. The company regrouped in Hawaii to prepare for battle on the island of Saipan. At Saipan, Dick was in charge of getting a constant stream of supplies from the water to an outpost on a mountainside.

One morning a few days after the Marines’ 4th of July attack on the Harbor of Saipan, Lt. Gerald English of the 4th Tank Battalion called for engineers to clear the roadway ahead of him. He feared landmines in the area. Ed Bale learned of Lt. English’s request. Some of his men had been in the area just hours earlier, so Bale was certain that the road was free of mines, and he intended to relay the message to English personally.

But Dick Sloat volunteered to go in Ed Bale’s place. Col. Bale told me, “It was my job to go. I didn’t go simply because he wanted to go so bad. And he was that kind of officer. I’ve had lieutenants that I’ve had to fire in combat. He was very different. He was very devoted to duty. You could rely on him. You didn’t have to tell him but once. He was always pleasant and enthusiastic, even under the worst of circumstances.”

So Dick volunteered to take Bale’s place and go down into a valley to relay a message to the 4th Tank Battalion. When he arrived at the commanding tank, he picked up the tank phone. It wasn’t working. He crawled onto the tank to make contact with someone inside. But an enemy gunman was watching and fired a direct shot into Sloat. Some of the men in the valley carried his body back up the hill. That July day, Ed Bale learned that a “fine, fine, fine man” had died. Col. Bale told me that he should have been the one to go down into that valley that morning, but Dick Sloat volunteered in his place. “Greater love has no man than this than that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Dick Sloat once stood here. His story should remind us that each generation is called to make sacrifices. Each of us can live in freedom because of what PHS grads before us did.

But in an even bigger and more significant way, each of us can live freely because Jesus Christ died in our place, because He volunteered to bear our Cross. He came for us; the least we can do is to go forth in His name, to abide in Him, to love Him who first loved us.

We can go out with gratitude. You and I have so much to be thankful for. Look around you now and you’ll see evidence of God’s love for you. He has brought all of us together for such a time as this. Think about the wonder of the people who God has brought into your life. It isn’t just by chance. It’s for His glory. Don’t underestimate the importance of the connection you’ve made with this community in these days of your youth. Don’t let the thrill and adventure of going make you forget where you come from. Wherever you go now, remember this place called Puyallup. Come back here at some point and pass along the blessings that have been given to you.

Deuteronomy 28 says, “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” May all of you in the Puyallup High School Class of 2012 be blessed as you go out from here.

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